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The Link between Diet and Mental Health as told by Nutritionist Lizzy Rose Clough

A healthy body equates to a healthy mind

The link between nutrition and mental health is becoming increasingly more clear. Attention around the subject of mental health is growing, and rightly so, yet when it comes to improving and preventing problems such as depression or anxiety, nutrition is often the last resort.

A nutritious diet is crucial not only to your physical wellbeing but also to your mental health. Our brain works 24/7 and takes care of our thoughts, breathing, heartbeat, movement, and senses even whilst sleeping. The brain is reliant upon fuel from the foods and drinks we consume yet its what’s in that fuel that can make all the difference.

Research has recently found that deficiencies in certain nutrients have a part to play in mental health disorders.

By feeding your body and mind with nutritious, rich foods, you will notice a significant effect on your mood, sleep and overall wellbeing. Here are the top 5 things to do to keep your mind and body on top form…

1. Vitamin D Supplementation

Vitamin D is essential for our body to function optimally and for our brain health, development and function. Deficiencies in vitamin D have been attributed to significant medical and psychological consequences.

In 2013, a meta-analysis found that participants who were suffering from depression had low levels of vitamin D. Equally, the research found those participants with lower levels of vitamin D were more prone to developing depression.

Our bodies synthesize vitamin D mainly from sunlight, however, unfortunately for most of us, sun exposure is limited for nearly half of the year. In the UK, Public Health England state that during the autumn and winter months, supplementation of vitamin D is essential.

So, where can we get it from? It is difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone so it is important to take a daily supplement of 10mcg during the colder and darker months. Always choose vitamin D3, which is what our body naturally produces, rather than D2 which is a more synthetic form.

2. Increase Intake of Magnesium-Rich Foods

Magnesium is a vital nutrient that is essential in our biological processes involved in mood regulation. A deficiency has been linked to a number of symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, irritability and potentially depression. Due to the modern and intensive agricultural methods, the quantity and quality of nutrients from our soil have been stripped down to a bare minimum.

Over the past 50 years, we have witnessed magnesium intakes drop, whilst anxiety levels have risen

The connection seems to be quite clear: increasing your intake of magnesium-rich foods can help ensure a good night’s sleep as well as calm nerves and help anxiety.

Foods rich in magnesium: spinach, pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans, avocados, bananas, oats, coriander

3. Introduce Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have incredible anti-inflammatory properties and support a healthy brain cell structure. They help to regulate the flow of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in your brain that influence thoughts and are directly related to fluctuations in mood.

Those who are not consuming enough omega-3 fatty acids may be more prone to mental health problems.

Certain research has linked inflammation in the brain to depression and the overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids which are now evident in the typical modern Western diet. Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential for our health, yet excessive amounts of vegetable oils now used in processed and refined foods can significantly contribute to inflammation within our body. Look for a balance between both essential fatty acids, ideally a ratio of 1:1, to improve symptoms of depression and alleviate panic attacks.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids: chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, brazil nuts, spinach and kale

4. Introduce Foods Rich in Friendly Gut Bacteria

Research has discovered that there is a direct communication between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. The neurotransmitter, serotonin, regulates your mood, appetite and sleep and an optimal amount can contribute to a relaxed and positive feeling. 90% of the serotonin we produce is found within the gastrointestinal tract and is influenced by the billions of ‘good’ bacteria that protect the lining of our intestines against toxins and any ‘bad’ bacteria.

Research has discovered that there is a direct communication between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain.

By ensuring you feed your body with gut-friendly foods, not only will you improve the absorption of nutrients but you will also enhance the communication between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract, potentially regulating your mood and improving mental health disorders.

Foods rich in gut-friendly bacteria: sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, miso or a probiotic supplement

5. Reduce Intake of Refined Sugar

Foods high in refined sugar are quickly absorbed into your bloodstream causing a ‘high’ and surge in energy. As this rush of energy gradually wears off, how are you left feeling? Pretty low and tired I expect.

Multiple studies have found a link between a diet high in refined sugars and symptoms of mood disorders such as anxiety or depression.

Over-consumption of sugar can cause an imbalance in certain brain chemicals, particularly dopamine, causing a roller-coaster of emotions and fluctuations in mood. Evidence around the impact refined sugars have on our health is increasing, with a clear indication that it is a contributing factor to certain mental health issues. Limit your intake of refined sugar and be vigilant about how much is in what foods. For example, two tablespoons of Heinz Tomato Ketchup contain eight grams of sugar!

*Always consult your GP before making any dietary changes.

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